Approximately ten sentences are uttered in Joe Penna’s tale of arctic endurance starring Mads Mikkelson as a stranded pilot. Aptly named Arctic, the picture’s minimal backstory has been concocted – deliberately – in a gritty survival film where simplicity is as present as the snowy backdrop. The plot could probably be summed up in a single sentence and its succinctness is prevalent from the opening scenes: an unnamed man digging out the letters “SOS”. This is a movie where actions speak louder than words.
After an unknown period of time following an unknown event, the resourceful man has built a life for himself. He sleeps in the plane wreckage, he maps his surroundings, he catches fish, he monitors the radio. Eat, sleep, survive, repeat. One day, something major happens that puts another survivor on the grid, and it’s this helpless, injured stranger (an unnamed woman played by María Thelma Smáradóttir) who sparks the trek against odds across the Arctic. Naturally, there are a few genre checkboxes to tick – the turbulent weather, wild animal attack, the impossible journey and one case of terrifying entrapment… However, there’s no vengeance plot nor bear carcasses à la The Revenant, or whimsical love story à la The Mountain Between Us. It’s refreshingly non-Hollywood.
Arctic is solely carried by the talented Mikkelson, who effortlessly fills the white space and the big screen; he also spends much of the film literally carrying his companion. This is pretty much the bulk of the plot, but comes with some silently significant decisions, the weight of which must also be carried. They’re etched in his nuanced, pained or hopeful facial expressions, a masterclass from the Danish actor and his ability to say a lot with very little. The fact that the audience has no inkling about his character’s background or identity, but can will him on and even identify with him, is a testament to his performance. It’s the non-showy moments of humanity and courage that set the film apart from predecessors in its genre.
Penna’s directorial debut shows the barefaced instinct to survive with no frills attached. It’s raw and unexpectedly authentic, sometimes terrifyingly graphic. The slow-building feature, its sparse tension and lack of action may not be for everyone. However, Mikkelson’s performance, combined with the beautiful location photography, makes it perfect for a journey to the cinema.
Arctic is released nationwide and on Digital HD on 10th May 2019.
Watch the trailer for Arctic here: